Tempranillo Time!

If there’s a perfect antidote to my never-ending POTUS blues, it’s sipping $65 Rioja (“ree-OH-ha”) wines and learning about them from the incomparable Doug Frost, MS, MW. Not only is Frost the funniest, most exuberant wine expert anywhere, he’s also one of only four people on the planet who’s both a Master Sommelier and Master of Wine–making him one smart wine dude.

 

And by Rioja wines, I mean Tempranillo. Like France, Spain sometimes does that annoying label thing where they name the wine according to the region where the wine is produced, not the grapes that go into it. In the case of red Rioja, the grape is Tempranillo–sometimes blended with Garnacha, Mazuelo (also known as Carignan, more often associated with the South of France), and Graciano grapes to give the wine a certain structure or taste. Mostly, though, you’ll be drinking Tempranillo.

The grape has a bit of an identity crisis; its half-dozen pseudonyms throughout Spain and Portugal include Tinta de Toro, Cencibel, Aragon and Tinta Roriz. But it was Rioja that bestowed Tempranillo’s global reputation as one of Spain’s premier grape varieties. In fact, Rioja is one of only two Spanish wine regions, the other being Priorat, that’s been elevated to DOCa status (Denominación de Origen Calificada)–the country’s top-ranking regional classification.

We can thank Rioja for yet another type of label confusion: if it simply states the wine is Rioja, it was bottled fairly young, after aging just a few months in the barrel. Crianza is a step up: wines labeled Crianza spent a minimum of one year in oak and at least a few more months in the bottle. “Reserve,” we know, can often mean whatever the winemaker wants you to believe it means, but in Spain they follow rules; if they label a wine as Reserva it’s been aged at least three years–one year in oak, two in the bottle. And if the label says Gran Reserva it spent two years in the barrel and another three years in the bottle before it left the winery.

If you’ve drank Tempranillo more than once, you already know that the aromas and tastes can be as different as bacon and pork roast. In the Doug Frost tasting, the second glass I tried felt a little oily in my mouth, while the next was warm and spicy, heavy on the cinnamon. Two glasses later, a caramel aroma hit me in the face, but that wine’s finish had a cranberry tartness. Some drinkers taste cherries in Tempranillo while others notice earthier tastes–fig, tobacco, herbs. Wine expert Jancis Robinson notices a masculine character, more savory than sweet, like “fresh tobacco leaves.”

Tempranillo was my first red-wine love, partly because it was one of the few “real” wines I could afford to buy. It’s still surprisingly affordable: you can spend $65 on a rare Gran Reserva if you like, but you can find Crianzas and Reservas for less than $15 in nearly any wine shop. And Rioja (or any good Tempranillo) is always a welcome hostess gift–especially if you’re coming to my place.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Staves = the vertical wooden planks, or slats, that form the sides of wine barrels.

Tempranillo med

Vino ‘View:  Anciano Reserva 2010 Tempranillo (13 percent alcohol; $10.50-12.50). See what I mean? A fine Reserva, less than $13 online at Cost Plus World Market. I bought this bottle in person for $11. It’s from Valdepeñas (DO), (“valley of rocks”), so named because the soil there is rich in limestone rock, sandy loam and clay. That lends a leathery, dry-leaves taste to the wine, balanced with the darker fruits grown in the region, directly south of Rioja in Castilla-La Mancha. It’s velvety-soft–a sexy wine, so I snapped it with the sexy photo in my dining room, “Powerhouse Mechanic” by Lewis Hine (1921). But this bottle won’t keep much longer; buy the 2010 to drink now.

Cheers!

Mary

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On Prime Rib Day, the Wine’s a No-Brainer

…Or is it?

I don’t have a beef with National Prime Rib Day.  I’ve mostly lost my taste for red meat in recent years, but on occasion I reach for a great burger or juicy steak. Someone, somewhere decided to dedicate this day to prime rib, and that’s enough of an occasion for me.

Ad Hoc Blowtorch Prime Rib

There’s a reason why prime rib is a relatively pricey steak on most restaurant menus. It’s taken from between the 6th and 12th ribs on the cow’s upper back – a high-quality cut that earns the highest grade from the USDA.

The prime rib’s juiciness depends on its marbling, or fat. I like mine medium rare with plenty of marbling, as in the photo above. If you’re dining in tonight, you’ll want to cook it on a low, slow heat, positioned with the meat resting atop the bone so that the meat itself doesn’t touch the roasting pan. (That’s why prime rib is sometimes called a “standing rib roast.”) And if you’re counting calories, one 3-ounce serving is just 200 calories – but a full prime rib in a restaurant is likely to be four times that amount. Then there’s the baked potato, with butter and a dollop of sour cream, and the wine…

You’d think pairing wine with prime rib would be a given: grab a bottle of Cab and you’re done, right? But if you enjoy learning how food and wine interact and change each other in your mouth, there’s a bit more to consider – namely, how you “dress” or finish the meat. With chicken or seafood – protein dishes that you can prepare a hundred different ways – pairing can get more involved. Prime rib, though, is fairly straightforward, and it’s easy to narrow your wine choices to two categories: spicy and spicier.

If you like to top your prime rib with au jus, then you’ll want a Big Sexy Red such as Mourvedre (or, as it’s called in Spain, Monastrell). It’s a wine that gives you structure without heavy oak aromas, with tastes of black pepper and thyme – spicy herbs that stand up to the fatty coating in your mouth. You’ll get those same lively spices from a Syrah or Grenache (Garnacha in Spain) – those elegant Southern Rhône grapes with just enough acidity to cut the fat.

But to me, one of the best flavors of a prime rib dinner is homemade horseradish sauce.

Horserad.sauce

It’s not for everyone. Some horseradish lovers prefer a creamier style; others take it plain. Whichever style you choose, you’ll want a robust red with enough tannins to tame the sting of this powerful root plant. Cabernet Sauvignon is an obvious choice, but I would go for a Dolcetto from northern Italy’s Piedmont region – or, even better, a Barbera-Dolcetto-Nebbiolo blend, if you can find it, from the Langhe district of Piedmont. Wines made from any of these grapes are typically rich and earthy, and they can be high-alcohol. These are the wines that will put hair on your chest.

Or, if you live in the Midwest, look for Cabernet Franc. Wine expert Jancis Robinson has called Cab Franc the “feminine side of Cabernet Sauvignon.” It’s a little softer, yet spicy and bold enough to sip with horseradish, with hints of bell peppers and tobacco. You probably can discover a winery in your region that produces it. French Cabernet Franc is lighter, but I enjoy the slightly bolder Midwestern version.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Saumur-Champigny = a small appellation in the Loire Valley region of France that produces only red wines. It’s known for its spicy red wines made almost entirely from Cabernet Franc grapes; blending up to 10 percent of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chenin Noir is permitted.

Enjoy those prime ribs!

Mary

[Photos by Arnold Gatilao (prime rib) and Paul (horseradish), courtesy of Flickr.]

 

Aw, Nuts! Try These Wines for Pecan Day

In the final run up to a major holiday like Easter, it’s easy to overlook an obscure observance like Pecan Day – and we have an abundance of wine choices to accompany our pecan-encrusted trout, pecan pie or a few handfuls of roasted pecans.

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This is the day, back in 1775, when George Washington planted a pecan sapling at his Mount Vernon estate. The baby tree was a gift from Thomas Jefferson, who grew “America’s own nut” at Monticello.

Botanists tell us the pecan, named for an Algonquian word that means, “a nut requiring a stone to crack,” actually is a fruit related to hickory. This inch-long treat is my favorite nut and a nutritional powerhouse, packed with antioxidants, vitamin E, beta-carotene, vision-friendly lutein, and cancer-fighting ellagic acid. It’s a heart-healthy, brain-healthy snack – although, at just under 200 calories for 20 halves, it’s fairly fattening.

You always want to pair fatty foods with an acidic wine, so if you’re eating your pecans plain, without a sugary coating, they’ll go well with a chilled dry Rosé or Sauvignon Blanc. Pecans also are a slightly sweet nut and the wine’s brightness will bring out the pecans’ sweet notes.

If dinner is trout or chicken with a pecan crust, Champagne or Cava (sparkling wine from Spain) will pair nicely; and if you think you’d enjoy just the slightest sweetness to match the natural sweetness in the nut coating, try Prosecco, an Italian bubbly. But keep in mind, you can find sparkling wines at every sweetness level; if you’re eating candied pecans and want to drink a sparkler, look for one that’s a little sweeter.

Candied pecans, in fact, will pair with a lot of lively, acidic wines. Pinot Grigio, Riesling  and Albariño are all good choices. And if your pecans are super-spicy, flavored with Chipotle or other peppers, go for the gusto and open a bottle of Gewürztraminer.

Reds don’t generally pair will with pecans; the nuts are just too mild to make a good match. But if you insist on drinking red wine (and I usually do), reach for a lighter grape such as Pinot Noir, or, if you want a wine with a bit more attitude, a Garnacha.

And if you’re eating pecan pie – the real reason pecans were invented, I think – you’ll want a dessert wine because your wine should be as sweet as your dessert. Look for Tawny Porto or, maybe better, try some Vin Santo from Tuscany, Icewine from Canada, or Sauternes from France. For a more economical choice, look for a late-harvest Viognier (white) or Zinfandel (red).

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Fortified wine = this is a handy place to mention fortified wines, because some of the wines you’ll choose to accompany dessert will have been fortified. These are wines to which alcohol has been added to raise the alcohol level to 15 percent or higher. Fermentation ends, and the winemaker is left with a high-alcohol wine.

Cheers – and for those celebrating this weekend, have a wonderful Easter!

Mary